Same Genes That Affect Children's Reading Ability, Influence Their Math Skills

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By Sarah Thomas | July 9, 2014 3:40 PM EST

So far, math was seen as a complex skill that only the intelligent and well equipped could master, and reading was known to be a simpler one. A new study published in the Nature Communications this week revealed that the genes that affected the reading ability of a 12 year old also affected the child's mathematic skills. These two cognitive traits are determined by the same genes. 

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Pupils read and learn the Koran during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at a mosque in Kheraisia, east of Algiers July 8, 2014. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi (ALGERIA - Tags: RELIGION EDUCATION SOCIETY)

There was a common notion that reading ability and a child's performance in math depended on hereditary, these abilities were said to run in the family. However, the system of genes that influenced these traits was unknown. Hence a large collaborative study was initiated to study the role of genetics in 12-year-olds' literacy and arithmetic skills.

Children from 2,800 British families were tested, some of them were twins. They were provided mathematical questions and were tested on their reading comprehensions and fluency. The results were fascinating; there was a sizeable overlap in the genetic variants that influence the two inherent traits.

Dr Oliver Davis from the University of Oxford and King's College London (UCL), the institute that led the study, said, "We looked at this question in two ways, by comparing the similarity of thousands of twins, and by measuring millions of tiny differences in their DNA," He explained that the similar collections of subtle DNA differences was the major factor that shaped these two skills.

While the research threw light on these genetic facts it also brought to light the various environmental aspects that influence the young one's abilities. Nature and nurture go hand in hand in the development of a child. The study did not find specific genes that are instrumental in the development of these cognitive traits, but it provided the base for further research. The study could open portals in the understanding of learning disabilities and may provide a way to overcome them.

Professor Robert Plomin (King's College London), who led the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), and one of the senior authors, clarified, "This is the first time we estimate genetic influence on learning ability using DNA alone. The study does not point to specific genes linked to literacy or numeracy, but rather suggests that genetic influence on complex traits, like learning abilities, and common disorders, like learning disabilities, is caused by many genes of very small effect size."

A previous twin study of genetic differences between children had found the same and this study confirmed their findings. Plomin urges people to respect the children's individual differences. A child's inability to keep up with the others in math or reading is due to genetic differences, and this needs to be understood and respected.

"Finding such strong genetic influence does not mean that there is nothing we can do if a child finds learning difficult - heritability does not imply that anything is set in stone - it just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring the child up to speed," Plomin added.

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(Photo: Reuters / )
Pupils read and learn the Koran during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at a mosque in Kheraisia, east of Algiers July 8, 2014. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi (ALGERIA - Tags: RELIGION EDUCATION SOCIETY)
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